The Two Faces of Islam
by Stephen Schwartz
[Note: The Two Faces of Islam was lead title in History on the Toronto Globe and Mail's 2003 roster of the year's best books.]
God "said to the Israelites, 'Dwell in this land. When the promise of the hereafter comes to be fulfilled, We shall assemble you all together.' "
You will not find Osama bin Laden or the Muslim clerics who support Hamas and various other terrorist outfits citing this quotation from their holy scripture, which unambiguously asserts the (divine) right of Jews to live in Israel. Nor do the extremists offer their own analysis of these verses and their meaning; instead they attempt to remove them from the consciousness of Muslims.
The fundamentalists have been overtaken by an apocalyptic belief that the last days are approaching and that Muslims must take up arms against "unbelievers." To do this they focus attention on the jihad verses of the Koran, to which they give their own brutalizing and shamelessly misleading emphasis.
You do, therefore, hear bin Laden and his thuggish colleagues refer to a verse like "Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them." What the assembled horde of fanatics, sociopaths, the bloodthirsty and deluded listening to this incitement are presumably not told, however, is that it is preceded by: "Proclaim a woeful punishment to the unbelievers, except for those idolaters who have honored their treaties with you. With these keep faith, until their treaties have run their term. God loves the righteous."
Furthermore, the command to "slay the idolaters" is followed by these words: "If they repent and take to prayer and render the alms levy, allow them to go their way. God is forgiving and merciful. If an idolater seeks asylum with you, give him protection so that he may hear the Word of God, and then convey him to safety." (Koran 9:3-6)
This latter courtesy was clearly not extended to the victims of Sept. 11, 2001.
The suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon did about as much good for the image of Islam as Guy Fawkes's botched attempt at blowing up the Westminster Parliament did for 17th-century English Roman Catholicism. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the perpetrators of either act of terror had any positive outcome in mind, let alone what such outcomes could possibly be. But neither act had any sanction from recognized authorities of the religions upon whose behalf it was carried out.
It seems very necessary now to remind ourselves in the West that only a span of years less than that separating the death of Christ from the birth of Mohammed separates us from terrors wrought by Christians against Christians. For the truth we should be more cognizant of is that, currently, Islam is as much, if not far more, at war with itself as it seemingly is with the rest of us. This is the subject with which this book deals. But unless more of us are willing to familiarize ourselves with the lengthy histories and complex analyses books such as this one necessarily involve, we must either declare our ignorant neutrality or our brazen bigotry whenever the issue arises -- for arise it most certainly will. Indeed, it will probably dominate the international political scene for the rest of all our lives.
The Two Faces of Islam is by far one of the most important and genuinely enlightening attempts to extricate one of the world's great religions from the demonizing tendencies of Washington's plutocrats, an intellectually corrupt media and what would seem to be its own extremism. It is the book one hoped would be written by a prominent Muslim -- ideally a cleric -- but the fact that it comes from a Jewish Sufi mystic, journalist and poet is all the more poignant, not to mention balefully ironic.
Its contents are also profoundly disturbing, and while they will be greeted with joyful relief by the vast majority of Muslims in the world, they pose, particularly for Americans, as many tangled and vexing questions as they answer.
Briefly, Schwartz's thesis is this: The princes of Saudi Arabia share power and the fabulous wealth of their petro-dollars with a hereditary priestly hierarchy overseeing a cultic travesty of Islam known as Wahhabism, after its 18th-century founder. Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was a poorly educated, narrow-minded, homicidal fanatic whose idiosyncratic, austere and uncharitable vision for his religion flew in the face of its own teachings and those accorded to its Prophet. Schwartz writes:
"The essence . . . came down to three points. First, ritual is superior to intentions. Second, no reverence of the dead is permitted. Third, there can be no intercessory prayer, addressed to God by means of the Prophet or saints. . . . Prayers to God by means of a pious person or even honours to any individual other than God were condemned as idolatry, despite their acceptance by all previous generations of Muslims and the Prophet himself. At the same time, defying centuries of Islamic theology, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's followers ascribed a human form to God."
If this was, loosely, what Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was for, then what he was against took up a good deal more room. His doctrines explicitly downgraded the status of Mohammed, yet he also claimed to live a life so close to the exemplar of Mohammed that he could stand as peer to the Prophet himself. "It seems clear," Schwartz writes, "that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab saw himself as an equal of the Prophet, a view that is also thoroughly heretical in Islam."
Some critics assert that he even saw himself as surpassing the Prophet. But, as seems common with heresies that gain a following, Wahhabism viewed everyone else as a heretic. Its leader denounced his opponents, and all Muslims unwilling to accept his views, as idolaters and apostates, and he abused the prophets, scholars, saints and other pious figures of the past.
Nor did he make any secret of his opinion that all Muslims had fallen into unbelief and that if they did not follow him, they should all be killed, their wives and daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated. Shias, Sufis and other Muslims he judged unorthodox were to be exterminated, and all other faiths were to be humiliated or destroyed.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was soon ordering the graves of Muslim saints dug up and scattered, or turned into latrines. He also burned many books, arguing that Koran alone would suffice for humanity's needs. Above all, and perhaps most telling, Wahhabism's prophet and his followers despised music, viewing it as an incitement to forgetfulness of God and to sin. Only fundamentalist Christianity can boast of reaching such a nadir of extremist folly -- such that those adhering to it open themselves to the suspicion of insanity.
Music, it should be noted, was perhaps Islamic civilization's crowning glory -- without whose influence and instruments Western classical music would be unimaginably bereft -- and to this day the ancient tradition continues to produce some of the most profoundly moving songs and instrumental music, both sacred and profane, in the world. For the various Sufi orders, many of which still use music or dance to attain ecstatic union with the divine, an Islam without music would be like air without the fragrant winds of Spring.
Yet this is the Islam of Wahhabism, a bleak creed, in the words of Stephen Schwartz , "fit for the nothingness of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's birthplace in Najd, a part of Arabia the Prophet himself did not favor. . . [reportedly characterizing it thus in a Hadith, one of his sayings that govern the behaviour of Muslims] 'From that place will come only earthquakes, conflicts, and the horns of Satan.' "
A prophetic utterance indeed, for with the terrible doctrine of Wahhabism, Schwartz tells us, "the basis had been laid for two and a half centuries of Islamic fundamentalism, and ultimately terrorism, in response to global change."
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was revolting against the changes wrought in his world when the Islamic caliphate was in the hands of the progressive and liberal Ottoman Turks. Such is the uncompromisingly immutable nature of the Najd region's lifeless, craggy landscape, however, that one can slide back and forth 1,500 years in time without noticing much essential difference. A thousand years earlier, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's tribe, the Banu Tamim, had resisted Mohammed's call to Islam, first demanding a debate with the Prophet, then asking to be paid for conversion. Schwartz quotes an Islamic source: "An attribute ascribed to the Tamimites . . . is that of misplaced zeal. When they finally enter Islam, they are associated with a fanatical form of piety that demands simple and rigid adherence, rather than understanding." This was the heritage to which Ibn Abd al-Wahhab succeeded. Three hundred years after him, Osama bin Laden would have felt equally at home in 7th- or 18th-century Najd.
The Wahhabi "reform" began when its founder chopped down a tree beloved of local mystics. Next he organized for the edification of the populace a demonstration of his doctrine in action: the stoning of a woman accused of "fornication." Ibn Abd al-Wahhab had mounted a challenge to the Ottoman order, and before long a fatwa was issued calling for his arrest. The people of Najd seem to have been evenly divided into supporters and opponents, though not evenly enough to prevent his being obliged to seek refuge in the village of Dariyah, in a district that was ruled by another local rebel, Muhammad ibn Sa'ud, and his family, known as Al Sa'ud.
Ibn Sa'ud and his clan, as befitted their status as local rulers, engaged in the only organized economic endeavour found in Najd's somewhat primitive environment: banditry. This career tended to bring them into regular conflict with the Ottomans. But because of this, by the mid-18th century, there was also a new propensity for them to ally with the British, who were then busily engaged in acquiring control of the more lush and valuable areas of the Arabian peninsula: the coastal emirates from Kuwait to Aden.
The Al Sa'ud were not, it must be said, exactly famed for their firm cleaving to the Muslim faith; indeed, they belonged to the tribe of Bani Hanifah, which bore the taint of having supported a crazed and messianic contemporary rival of Mohammed known as Musaylima the Liar. Dariyah made the American West of the following century look like Sweden. It was literally lawless, ruled by the whims of the Al Sa'ud. Yet in 1747 a crude government was formed, following a unique agreement between Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Al Sa'ud that amounted to a power-sharing pledge between the two families in perpetuity -- the former as religious authority and the latter as political ruler.
The deal was cemented with a marriage contract between members of the families, and it was agreed that power should be inherited exclusively by their descendants, as if, comments Schwartz, "their lineage carried greater authority than that of Mohammed, who neither imposed his successor nor made any attempt to establish a dynasty."
The motives of the two principals were transparent enough: Ibn Abd al-Wahhab saw himself as the new Islamic prophet, destined to replace the Ottoman caliphate and, as sole theological authority, rule a purified ummah (the Islamic collectivity) that would eventually contain the entire globe. Al Sa'ud, more simply, viewed the extremism of the Wahhabis as a means for the legitimization of political power. Many commentators have characterized the Wahhabis' labeling of other Muslims unbelievers as nothing more than a pretext for robbery, murder and rape, activities that greatly appealed to the brutal crew of sand pirates who rallied to the leadership of Al Sa'ud.
As Schwartz points out, the alliance was also the "first known exemplar of totalitarianism, which may be defined as the merging of an extremist ideology with an absolutist state." Although no one was aware of it, the first emergence of the diabolical personality manifested in Stalin, Hitler and the rest of 20th-century history's unlovely political bestiary was almost 200 years earlier in the central Arabian desert.
By 1788, the Wahhab-Sa'ud alliance controlled most of the Arabian peninsula. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab died in 1792, and Muhammad ibn Sa'ud's son, Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa'ud, took over the leadership of the alliance, extending its raids on neighbouring territories to include Medina, Syria and Iraq. These campaigns were extraordinarily bloody, with the mass murder and rape of Shia Muslims as well as adherents of the Hanafi and other Islamic legal schools rejected by the founder of Wahhabism.
Irreducibly concise, Schwartz's book has already by this stage given the reader a history of Islam's founding and the formation and beliefs of the two main branches of the faith, the orthodox Sunna and the more populist Shia -- originally followers of the Prophet's son-in-law, Ali, and grandson, Hussein, believing that Islam's caliphate should remain within the dynastic blood-line of the Prophet's direct descendants.
This, however, hardly explains the Wahhabis' inordinate hatred of Shiism. It is known that the Shias of Hasa, a region directly east of Najd, contemptuously rejected Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's pretensions when he traveled there without an army to defend his faith. It may, however, simply be that the Shia were far richer than the Bedu of Najd and thus natural targets for plunder.
Whatever its source, violent hatred of Shias has remained a constant throughout Wahhabi-Saudi history. Indeed, today the Saudi school systems, which strictly follow Wahhabi tenets, teach their children and other Muslims throughout the Islamic world that Shia Islam was invented by an imaginary Jewish convert, that Shia theologians are liars, that their legal traditions are false and that they are not Muslims at all.
In 1801, Wahhabis stormed the Shia holy city of Karbala, in Iraq, site of the tomb of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet -- who had been murdered there 10 centuries earlier to prevent his claim on the caliphate -- and they slaughtered thousands of its citizens, and also wrecked and looted the sacred tomb.
The following year, the conduct of Wahhabis following the surrender of Ta'if, a city in western Arabia, underlined the difference between the traditional concept of jihad -- struggle to promote the faith -- and that embraced by the doctrines of Wahhabism. This new jihad was directed against Muslims.
Schwartz writes, "In the taking of Ta'if, it is said that the Wahhabis 'killed every woman, man, and child they saw, slashing with their swords even babies in cradles. The streets were flooded with blood.' Citizens who surrendered in their houses were executed, their bodies trampled by horses and left unburied. Their homes were looted and their possessions scattered, later to be washed away by rain. The Wahhabis then set about destroying all the holy tombs and burial grounds in the city, followed by the mosques and Islamic schools, or medresas . . . the leather and gilt bindings of the Islamic holy books they had destroyed were used to make sandals for the Wahhabi warriors." Next they took Mecca. On taking Medina, they stole the Prophet's treasure, which included holy books, works of art and innumerable priceless gifts sent to the city during the previous thousand years. While they controlled the Two Holy Places, they imposed Wahhabism as an official creed, barred pilgrims from performing the hajj, covered up the Ka'bah with a rough black fabric, and began demolition of shrines and cemeteries. The prototype for a modern "Islamic" terrorist regime had been established.
As Schwartz points out, though, there is nothing "Islamic" about Wahhabism, and western apologists for the Al Sa'ud make a great mistake in comparing the cruel and nihilistic cult to Protestant reform movements. Yet the cruelty, greed and hypocrisy of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance was to be matched by the behaviour of the United States towards it during the global domination of Big Oil.
From 1945 on, Washington embarked on a business partnership with the Al Sa'ud that gave American oil interests gathered under the name Aramco the control over oil production that Britain had until then enjoyed. It was also then that Aramco and its friends in American public life "began a long and shameless effort to prettify the extremist and terrorist origins of the Saudi monarchy.
Schwartz quotes J. B. Kelly writing of Aramco that it "constituted itself the interpreter of Saudi Arabia -- its people, its history, its culture, and above all its ruling house -- to the United States at large, and because there were no other sources of information about that country open to the American public, ARAMCO could put across its version of recent Arabian history and politics with almost insolent ease. . . . Naturally, little prominence was accorded in ARAMCO's publicity to the fanatical nature of Wahhabism, or to its dark and bloody past."
By now another Ibn Saud ruled the Kingdom, which was a country run like a family business, and his main concern was to hang onto it. On all sides Arab regimes were toppling, but the ceaseless flow of cash -- millions every minute, night and day -- pumped in as oil was pumped out, gave Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi partners immense resources for dealing with potential trouble. Just as his ancestors had relied upon British military might to keep them in power, so the 20th century Ibn Saud needed his American allies. Thus he had to be careful not to offend Western sensibilities while also seeming quintessentially Arab in his Middle East dealings, as befitted the guardian of the Two Holy Places.
Saudi foreign policy is thus best characterized as two-faced. When a Jewish state was proclaimed in Israel and its Arab neighbours immediately went to war, Ibn Saud publicly supported the war but did not send troops to the front, and arrested those among his own subjects who went there to fight. When the war was over, displaced Palestinians were barred from entering the Saudi kingdom, out of anxiety that they, having never lived under a Wahhabi-style regime, would stimulate discontent. It has long been believed by Arabs that Ibn Saud and his successors feared their unification against Israel, which could turn against him, more than he resented the foundation of the Jewish state.
What Schwartz terms a "vast mafia of princely parasites" also began to make problems for the Kingdom as the 20th century rolled by and the petro-dollars kept pouring in. Once known for mixing religious piety and political opportunism, the Saudi aristocracy had become an unparalleled symbol of debauchery, ostentation and waste, as well as ignorance, prejudice and brutality.
"Their tastes," writes Schwartz, "led them to taverns, casinos, brothels. . . . They bought fleets of automobiles, private jets, and yachts the size of warships. They invested in valuable Western art they did not understand or like and which often offended the sensitivities of Wahhabi clerics. They spent as they wished, becoming patrons of international sexual enslavement and the exploitation of children. Yet at the same time, they dedicated a large proportion of their wealth to the promotion of international Wahhabi radicalism, in a desperate attempt to bridge the gulf between pretense and reality."
How was it that the grotesque duplicity of the Saudi regime -- fostering official Puritanism and unofficial degeneracy, proclaiming loyalty to Islam while rooting out its traditions, and agitating for the wholesale destruction of Israel while proclaiming its loyalty to the United States -- was ignored for so long by Western leaders and public opinion? A closed society and the political demands of the oil economy are insufficient explanations, although the Aramco partners and the American political and media elites that have served them can take most of the responsibility for the continuation of dishonesty and injustice in Arabia, as well as, eventually, the rise of Islamic terrorism.
If the princes squandered their share of the oil loot, the Wahhabi clerics invested theirs wisely. They controlled schools all over the world; they controlled Islamic publishing almost entirely; they controlled most of America's mosques, which had their Friday sermons faxed directly from Riyadh. And most of all, they funded terror campaigns, along with the training camps that turned out the warriors for jihad along with the suicide-bombers to spark it. Most of the September 11 hijackers were Saudis and, furthermore, mostly from the same impoverished province of the kingdom famed for the churlish ignorance and witless courage of its inhabitants.
Schwartz devotes the last third of his book to a detailed analysis of the means by which the Al Sa'ud achieved their feat of double-crossing, and although he tries to be optimistic about the current Washington regime's determination to fight global terror, his breakdown of George W. Bush's staff and their links to Big Oil is not especially inspiring. Particularly when his account of the meeting between Bush and Saudi Ambassador Prince Sultan also alludes to a rumour that the prince threatened the president with a Saudi-Iraqi alliance and an oil embargo unless the United States stopped its allegations against the Al Sa'ud of collusion with the terrorists of September 11.
But whether or not one prince is involved, and another not, it is still certain that Osama bin Laden, an avatar of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab if ever there was one, is directly funded by Saudi petro-dollars, and that al-Quaeda has all the hallmarks of a Wahhabi terror outfit, from the distortion of Koran to the soulless cruelty of its campaigns against the innocent.
More hopeful is Schwartz's conclusion that the sole chance for peace in the Middle East lies in a summit of spiritual leaders -- imams, rabbis, archbishops -- agreeing to let their flocks know that, despite appearances to the contrary, the One True God is actually against murder and mayhem. Since there are religious bases for every current horror I can think of, this may be the one solution that no one would ever propose -- but it just might work. We have literally nothing to lose in trying.
Related Topics: Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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